From destroyed Amazonian rainforests to the Himalayas, Extreme E is ‘future of off-road racing’


When Alejandro Agag first touted the idea of Formula E to his close friend and Formula 1’s long-time puppet master Bernie Ecclestone, he was bluntly told he was destined for failure.

But with the series now approaching a $1 billion valuation, Ecclestone was happy enough to eat his words when the pair met for a pre-Christmas lunch.

“Bernie in the beginning said, ‘This is never going to work,’” recalled Agag. “When I met him for lunch he could say congratulations, very impressive and he said he’s happy that he was wrong and I was right. But he was very negative in the beginning. He said, ‘Listen, don’t do it, you’re going to crash.’ Luckily, we didn’t.”

Five years on from its series opener, Ecclestone has been far more receptive as Spaniard Agag starts again from scratch with Extreme E.

The new electric series, to be launched in 2021, has been likened to “Blue Planet meets the Dakar Rally,” and is “the future of off-road racing,” according to Agag.

The premise of the series is to take electric SUVs to the most remote and extreme locations on the planet, from the destroyed rainforests of the Amazon to the Himalayas, and from the deserts of Saudi Arabia to the rising oceans affecting Senegal to raise awareness of the damage of climate change.

READ: Formula E hopes to ‘accelerate’ use of electric vehicles

Kevin Hansen testing the Odyssey, the car for the Extreme E series.
Shivraj Gohil

Agag is confident there is the room for another electric series out there.

“My conviction is that there’s a huge appetite for Extreme E,” he told CNN from Extreme E’s London offices.

“The beauty is that all these challenges are connected. In Greenland, we were seeing the melting of the ice caps then in Senegal on the coast we saw families having to migrate as their homes are being destroyed by the rising seas level. That is the same water we saw melting in the Arctic.”

Lewis Hamilton to Formula E

The Spaniard is well aware there will be pitfalls. At one stage, Formula E was down to its last $100,000 in the bank while owing $25 million to its suppliers, a pressure that he admits meant he was not sleeping at night. Now, it is into its sixth season and Agag is targeting even bigger names joining the grid, namely six-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, who has recently been pushing environmental issues.

READ: An electric car to get you from London to Paris

“It would be great to have Lewis in Formula E but I don’t see it happening soon,” he said. “I’m sure Lewis wants to win more F1 championships, there’s some records for him to beat. He’s an outstanding driver and also a great personality, plus I think his statements for the environment are really important. He’s someone that helps make the world wake up and that’s important.”

With Extreme E, there have been no shortage of driver suitors. Six-time World Rally Champion Sebastien Ogier has already signed up as an ambassador, while double amputee Billy Monger and ex-Formula E champion Lucas di Grassi are among a long list of drivers to have expressed an interest.

READ: Lewis Hamilton defends environmental social media posts, aims to be ‘carbon neutral’

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Extreme E: 'Blue Planet meets Dakar Rally'

‘Breaking eggs’

The racing itself sees groups of six teams compete with the top four going through to the knock-out stage with head-to-heads for a place in the final on a course about six miles long with virtual gates to navigate in often extreme conditions.

The series will have a floating grid, the series and its cars traveling from venue to venue via former Royal Mail ship RMS St Helena. But won’t it have its own carbon footprint on the planet?

“Extreme E will have a footprint,” he added. “But as we say in Spain, if you want to make an omelette you need to break some eggs. We need to take action and we think staying at home is not the solution. We think the benefits of championships like Extreme E far exceeds the emissions a championship like this will generate.”

There are plans to replant forests where they race in a deforested part of the Amazon or else help with agriculture projects for local communities in the Himalayas.

READ: Jump on board the world’s largest electric vehicle

Mexico City, R4: Porsche’s Andre Lotterer (right) led the field off the grid from pole in what was an incident filled Mexico E-Prix.
Hector Vivas/Getty Images

A huge crowd reported to number about 100,000 turned out to watch the electric racing series.
Hector Vivas/Getty Images

A helmeted fireman watches on as the race unfolds.
Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images

Australia’s Mitch Evans, driving a Panasonic Jaguar Racing car, overtook Lotterer on the first corner and built up a sizeable lead to win by more than four seconds.
Hector Vivas/Getty Images

Santiago, Chile, R3: Victory goes to Maximilian Günther of the BMW i Andretti Motorsport team.
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At 22, Gunther became the youngest Formula E race winner in history.
Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images

The E-Prix Antofagasta Minerals was the third round of the ABB FIA Formula E Championship.
Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images

Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, R2: Alexander Sims sets the early pace during the second E-Prix of the season in Diriyah.
Francois Nel/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images

BMW’s Sims celebrates following his maiden Formula E victory.
Francois Nel/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images

Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, R1: Porsche’s Neel Jani leads the pack in practice ahead of the first Formula E race of the season in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia.
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Sam Bird celebrates after winning the first race of the Formula E Championship.
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Nico Müller of Switzerland turns a corner in Diriyah.
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Pascal Wehrlein comes over the crest of hill during practice ahead of the first E-Prix of the season.
Francois Nel/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images

Daniel Abt avoids some spilled liquid on the track in Diriyah.
Francois Nel/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images



‘F1 will have to become electric one day’

Agag says he has been pushing green credentials for more than two decades, harking back to his time in the European Parliament when, as he puts it, “I was putting up questions about sustainability when 21 years ago no one cared about sustainability.”

Extreme E founder Alejandro Agag (central) with soldiers in a deforested region of the Amazon.

“I follow closely what Greta Thunberg and what Extinction Rebellion are doing, and activism is a key part of waking up and the world needs to wake up,” he said.

Britain’s Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, (L) opens the passenger door of an E-Type Jaguar car for his wife Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, (R) as they leave Windsor Castle in Windsor on May 19, 2018 after their wedding to attend an evening reception at Frogmore House. (Photo by Steve Parsons / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read STEVE PARSONS/AFP/Getty Images)


Classic cars reborn as electric vehicles

“That role is very important but it’s only one part, you also need people like us, businessmen, people that do things and execute their vision. It all helps find a big solution.”

The 49-year-old remains chairman of Formula E but has stepped away from his role as CEO to turn his attention to Extreme E. The former has already put pressure on F1, while the latter looks destined to compete directly with events like the Dakar.

“F1 is an amazing brand – the pinnacle of motorsport and I’m a great fan,” he added. “But I also think F1 will have to become electric one day.

“The way to do that… I don’t know, maybe we’ll merge but something needs to happen because I don’t think F1 can live long-term without it.

“And Extreme E is the future of off-road racing. Is that going to affect other rally championships, events like Dakar, I don’t know. I think there may also be a space for them in the future, I don’t know. What I do know, what I believe, what I hope is that there is a big, big space for Extreme E to showcase these locations and these problems.”


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